The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
The Wolf and the Lamb
The wolf shall live with the lamb; the cow and the bear shall graze. So says a beautiful promise of peace from Isaiah. I have to admit that I haven't been very fond of it.
If peace can only come when the predators stop eating, then God's shalom seems like a very distant promise. And, as I wrote a few years ago, my modern ecological way of seeing the world has problems with Isaiah's peaceful vision -- he labels the mechanisms that sustain ecological health and drive evolutionary processes as flaws in the creation.
I had shied away from Isaiah 11:6-9 for years, but this spring a church asked me to preach an Earth Day sermon based on the text. That provided an opportunity for me to discover a marvelously relevant affirmation in the words about the wolf and the lamb.
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Isaiah spoke to the real fears of his community. Wild animals were a threat, eating sheep and cattle, and sometimes killing shepherds. When God's peace breaks in, he promised, you'll be safe. As I pondered that message this spring, I stumbled into enlightenment when I compared Isaiah's words with a somewhat similar message of hope that is tucked away in the book of the prophet Ezekiel.
Ezekiel also thought about wild animals as a problem. Here is what he had to say about it (34:25): "I will make a covenant of peace with [Israel] and rid the land of wild beasts so that they may live in the desert and sleep in the forests in safety."
How do you find peace? One way is to wipe out the ones that you think are causing problems. Dangerous animals? Banish them! (Ezekiel is a strange and convoluted prophet, and his words about beasts may have a hidden political sub-text.)
That's fairly conventional thinking, isn't it? We see the same mindset in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming in an ongoing controversy about the wolves that were re-introduced in Yellowstone National Park. The ranchers who have cattle and sheep, and the hunters who like having lots of elk, see the wolves as a real problem. And their solution is to kill them, to "rid the land of wild beasts" so that their herds are not disturbed.
A recent news report says, "More than 550 gray wolves have been killed by hunters and trappers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming this season." Other wolves that are considered a direct threat to livestock are killed by federal Wildlife Service agents.
Ezekiel's way to a peaceful world is still attractive to lots of people. Just make the dangerous stuff go away, so that our property and our profit are all secure.
With that contrast, I saw that Isaiah's peaceable realm isn't about protecting our self-interest. It is a mind-blowing declaration about the value of an entire community.
Isaiah knows that dangerous animals are a real problem, but he refuses to write them off. The wolf and the leopard and the lion and the bear and the snakes are part of God's community. If God's peace is really going to be found, then the whole community has to be there. Removing some of God's beloved creatures would violate the very peace that he's trying to describe.
Somehow, someway, says Isaiah, all of us are going to live in peace. How could that be? Well, I guess that they'll have to stop eating each other. If you're going to imagine God's peace, you've got to be willing to think big.
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Isaiah's inclusive picture of God's peace is a profoundly relevant challenge for today.
We are in the midst of one of the planet's great extinction events -- a diminishing of life comparable to the end of the age of dinosaurs. By the end of this century, if we keep going as we have been, more than half of the species on this planet will be gone.
This isn't just snail darters and obscure flowers. The lions and leopards and bears named by Isaiah, those top predators who balance the web of life, won't exist in a few decades. Our close kin, the gorillas -- gone. Rain forests, those places of incredible variety in plants and animals, are being stripped away. Coral reefs, so essential to the health and diversity of oceans, are in failing health.
Biblical theology tells us that each of those creatures, each of those species, is beautiful and beloved in the eyes of God. Ecological biology tells us that each of those creatures, each of those species, plays an essential role in the complex and fragile web of life. In faith and in science, we know that the whole community is valuable.
But our modern way of life is ripping apart the web of life. We have placed our own immediate interests above those of the larger community. As a result of human actions, countless varieties of God's beloved creatures are being driven to extinction.
In today's world, Isaiah -- that prophet of boundless creativity -- presents us with an enormous challenge. If the whole community of life is important, then we're going to have to think way outside the box to find a path to peace and justice for all of us.
Isaiah imagined a time when the predators would not eat the other critters. Wow! Can we imagine a time when our culture does not gobble up the rest of creation? That is a smaller step than Isaiah's. It does not require a complete change of biology and ecology. All it means is that we have to change our way of life, and our self-understanding.
To sustain a world with a rich diversity of life, we humans need to see ourselves as part of creation. We need to make choices that value simplicity, sufficiency and sustainability. We have to give mindful attention to future generations instead of being fixated on the quarterly balance sheet. Those changes are big and hard. But they are also changes that our Christian faith affirms as good and faithful.
2,500 years ago, Isaiah knew that God's realm of peace and justice must include all of creation, somehow. His description of shalom was an amazing act of imagination.
Can we imagine that humans can stop devouring the rest of creation -- that God will guide us into a realm of shalom where all are together in a community of justice and peace? And then, can we start to act our way toward that diverse and inclusive world?
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